Separated by a common language




I’m working on Americanizing  a YA novel from the UK  for our spring 2011 Carolrhoda Lab list. That was a hard sentence for me to write, because I’m somewhat allergic to the idea of Americanization. As a reader, I really enjoy encountering the subtleties of different forms of English usage in fiction. I think children’s books in the US have benefitted in the Harry Potter era from letting UK English stand—from leaving those chips and mums alone.  So, at least in theory and as a reader, I’m inclined to say Americanisation is rubbish.

In practice/practise, though, I’m finding it’s not quite so simple. For example:

It was long past midnight when the Horror appeared at the
end of Westmoreland Road. No one in the run-down estate saw it. No one heard it as it burst through the washing lines of the poky little gardens.

This is the first sentence of the novel in question. On the face of it, no Americanization is needed here—at least there are no British spellings or unfamiliar words. However, a young American reader is very likely to read the word “estate” quite differently from the author’s intended meaning (“gardens” won’t help things), and all of a sudden, the reader is picturing something quite different from what the author imagined. It’s an unfortunate way to start a book. I need to find a way to get readers picturing a British “council estate” not some grand country home—more Zadie Smith than Daphne Du Maurier .




This kind of dissonance between UK and US usage is a much bigger problem than the usual “mum” to “mom” and “chips” to “fries.” It’s not so much the words that are spelled differently; it’s the words that are used differently that trips up readers. As an editor, I’m coming to the realization/realisation that it’s this kind of Americanization that really makes a difference for readers.

And how you make the change really matters. It’s not translation. For example, from the same book, a little later:

We walked into a wall of drum and bass. The usual assortment of year 13s were lounging about on Tori’s boxy sofas and chairs, and it was noisy, but at least the lamps in the room were subdued and indirect.

The Britishism is obvious here, but I would argue the change isn’t so simple as changing “year 13” to whatever the American high school equivalent is (I actually don’t know at the moment). I don’t want to replace a peculiarly British usage with a peculiarly American one if I can avoid it—after all, the book is still set in the UK. So, since the ages of the characters are well established and the nature of the  “assortment” isn’t important, I’m probably going to change “year 13s” to “people.” The meaning is unharmed and no uniquely American syntax disrupts the British setting.

Later on, readers will encounter another different British school term: “maths” instead of “math.” I’m not going to change that. Why would I? No reader will be remotely confused, and any reader with familiarity with British usage will see evidence of my having been there—and that’s antithetical to good editing.

With Americanization, I say less focus on types of fried potatoes and more focus on making sure the story works for readers with minimal “translation.”

One thought on “Separated by a common language

  1. Ann Kerns

    The first line of Joyce's short story “Araby” begins, “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street….” I first read the story in high school, and I had no idea what “being blind” meant. I couldn't even guess. But a US editor changing that to “being a dead end” would be so wrong, in the same way that changing a Steinbeck or a Kerouac phrase to a Britishism would be. As it was, I savored the sound of Joyce's phrase and enjoyed my aha moment when I figured out what it really meant. And it became one of my favorite “first sentences.”

    I love regional differences in English–from Flannery O'Connor to Irvine Welsh–and think they only add to a reader's appreciation of the language, unless, as you say, a word or phrase leads a reader to understand something very different than what was intended. Carefully considering those issues is one the pleasures of editing.

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